The DVD cover art is ominous enough. What looks like the outside of a crumbling ancient Roman aqueduct dominates the stage, with a multitiered cylinder in front. Is this what the 1999 Salzburg Festival had in mind for po... more »or old Faust in Hector Berlioz's involving and original "legend dramatique in four acts"? Apparently so. Stage directors Alex Olle and Carlos Padrissa's demented take on a work that has been variously staged or presented simply in concert form is so disastrous that it's actually worth a look. (In its defense, it's possible that this staging needed to be experienced in person, where its physical monumentality might have approximated the masterly score.) Musically, this is a superlative performance: Paul Groves is a sympathetic Faust, Willard White is an appropriately menacing Mephistopheles, and Vesselina Kasarova is an exquisite Marguerite. Sylvain Cambreling sensitively conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin, and two excellent choirs' vocal contributions should not go unnoticed. (However, condolences to those choir members stuck in that ludicrous cylinder.) Both visual presentation and sound are, as usual for Arthaus Musik discs, first-rate; only the staging itself comes off as less than worthwhile. --Kevin Filipski« less
"There is a word currently used in the world of opera, Eurotrash, which means an absurd "concept" staging of an opera in which symbolism runs riot, all too often at the expense of the drama and of the acting, let alone the singing. At first, I said Here We Go Again when I began to view the Arthaus Musik DVD edition of Berlioz' (10011 018), giving us the 1999 Saltzburger Festspiele production. First all the negative elements. The stage contains a gigantic transparent cylinder in and around which most of the action takes place. The backdrop consists of three tiers of arches. The chorus is dressed throughout in loose fitting white outfits that make them look like bakers and they are forever carrying on their backs what looks like the old fashioned milk containers used on dairy farms. (They are supposed to be the holders of man's psyches, you learn if you read the notes.) Faust is similarly dressed but little by little, he keeps replacing his garments with black pieces identical to Mephisto's. (The two sides of man's personality, you see.) Marguerite has to settle for the same black evening gown throughout. (She has always been devilish? With such symbolism, who can tell?) The peasants who should be dancing on the green, according to what they themselves are singing, are wearing smoked glasses to see an eclipse of the sun, while later a small group is kicking around a soccer ball to show jollity. During the Hungarian March, we have the same whiteclad chorus forming a procession with those milk jugs, during the Ballet of the Sylphs, we have Mephisto slowly crossing the stage and not a dancer in sight, and during the Ballet of the Will-o'-the-Wisps we have those same jugs acting as flashlights but again no dancing. The result of all this is that we lose any feeling that these are real people (even the Devil should come over as a personality and not a symbol), much to the detriment of the drama. The subtitles often play free and loose with the French text, usually elaborating a simple French phrase into something more poetical, now and then introducing a slang word like "savvy" (for "style de savant"). And one has to wince when the gray haired Mephisto (Willard White, a black singer) iss described by the chorus as pale and red haired. The opening and closing titles indicate that this video should be shown with letterbox formatting. Also, the booklet's numbering of the tracks is one less than your player will show on the readout. Now for the good aspects. Computer-generated images are often projected onto the cylinder to stunning visual effect. We actually see horses during the Ride to Hell sequence (although Faust and Mephisto remain stationary. Faust's fall into the abyss looks quite real, although I wonder what the audience saw from their seats. Marguerite's song about the King of Thule and his goblet seems to take place inside an immense goblet that dissolves at the end of the song, again to great effect. The singing was first rate, if the acting was not. Paul Groves' voice was just right for both Faust's lyrical moments and his dramatic ones. Willard White was a very imposing looking Mephisto and managed to be appropriately mocking in his serenade. His voice was almost drowned out only in the Hell sequence in which the orchestra was too loud for a good balance. Vesselina Kasarova sang a sympathetic Marguerite and really tried acting during her two great solos, only to be defeated by having to sing from the cylinder. The close-ups unkindly accentuated the perspiration in which all three were bathed. The singing of the chorus was mostly very good, considering they were not allowed to move while vocalizing, and only during the first part of the Easter Hymn were they almost inaudible. Sylvian Cambreling lead his Staatskapelle Berlin with energy and now and then with the delicate nuance that this score demands. It is, after all, the only "Damnation" on video; but I hope some day for a more traditional treatment."
Enough Symbolism Already
Charles Spargur | Florence, KY United States | 10/06/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I was eagerly looking forward to La Damnation de Faust recorded at the 1999 Salzberg Festival. All indications pointed to a rousing Berlioz event, and musically it was not disappointing at all. Regretably in this case the symbolism overrides the plot, and there is nothing left to appreciate but the music. People in white costumes, playing soccer? The same people moving some indiscript machine around the stage to represent the war machine in the "Hungarian March"? A bald red-headed Mephisto? No dancing in the ballets? In places I closed my eyes and just listened. A decade ago I saw a similar "Damnation of Faust" presented by a Philadelphia opera company, and it was just as mind numbing and illogical as this production. When the Faust story cannot stand on its own, without this constant re-interpretation it will cease to be a classic, and that will never happen. There's nothing wrong with symbolism, unless it gets in the way of the story. Why can't the story be "symbolic friendly" without jerking Faust out of the middle ages into some nebulous environment where it is impossible for the tale to unfolded as it was written? Berlioz never intended this version of Faust to be presented as a staged opera. On his first trip to London the empressario Julien, made an offer for him to convert it into an opera, but that fell through. He would have obviously changed some things had he done so. The technical problems presented by "La Damnation de Faust", especially the Ride to the Abyss make it very difficult to stage effectively, although the Salzberg production did a fair job technically, utilizing a large cylinder where some of the action took place. However, my suggestion is that until someone can do it right, leave the piece alone. The human mind is still the best stage for this remarkable work. The singing was very good, the orchestra played the piece the way Berlioz should be played, and the sound was excellent. And a big plus is the 5.1 Dolby Digital - that alone is worth the price of the DVD. My only quibble with the sound was in the Hungarian March where the bass drum representing distant cannon fire was barely audible. I rate this version 4 stars for the music and the sound. You might find the staging amusing; just don't let it distract you from the music."
Thomas F. Bertonneau | Oswego, NY United States | 12/23/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The Faust Legend is heady stuff, arising from the heart of medieval Gothic culture. No wonder it exercised such a strong effect on Goethe and on the opera composers (such as Gounod) who made settings of his dramatic poem. Among these, Berlioz comes closest to Goethe in his understanding of the tale - not a maudlin love-story as in Gounod's setting but a depiction of demonism, intoxication, and shameless seduction as responses to boredom and mortality. "La Damnation de Faust" (1846) elaborates Berlioz's earlier "Huit Scenes de Faust" (1828); the composer described it not as an opera but as a "Légende dramatique." For more than a century producers considered it unstageable; but in recent decades advances in stagecraft have solved most of the problems. The performance preserved on the Arthaus DVD comes from the 1999 Salzburg Festival. The company is a Spanish one, La Fura dels Baus. The cast is vocally unexceptionable, with a fine Mephistopheles in Willard White, a decent Faust in Paul Groves, and a slightly overwrought but still plausible ingénue (Margarethe) in Vesselina Kasarova. It's stage-director Alex Olle's visual conception that raises questions. Maybe I'm reactionary, but I see "La Damnation de Faust" in Gothic terms; not necessarily as Gustave Doré saw it in his famous illustrations for Goethe's Part I (although that would be fine with me), but as close and stony in its setting, with architecture in the ogival style. An expressionist mise-en-scene in the style of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" would be appropriate, too. What La Fura dels Baus gives us, however, is a highly abstract, skeletal-industrial realization full of incomprehensible and seemingly arbitrary touches. Faust, for example, wears what looks like a patient's uniform from a mental asylum; so does everyone else, except Mephistopheles, who appears to shop at Wilson's House of Leather and Suede. Why is Faust (along with the chorus) lugging a milk-can on his back? Why does Mephisto hand Faust a black leather loafer just before he takes him to see Margarethe for the first time? What are the bizarre objects that look like rejected props from a sci-fi flick that the chorus shuffles around the stage? The large tower just right of center-scene is supposed to represent an alchemist's oven, or alembic. The action is supposed to be taking place "inside Faust's mind." Yeah, but Faust had a Gothic mind, not a hackneyed post-modern one. I felt the same moderate indignation that Peter Konwitschny's "Tristan und Isolde" inspired in me when it turned the ship in Wagner's Act I into a cruise-liner, and tarted up the scene in cream-whites with splashes of primary blue and red totally inappropriate to the darkness of the tale. The eccentricity of the staging in this "Damnation" is a pity, since DVD is obviously THE medium for recorded opera; and because the performance is musically meritorious. (It's not on the level of the criterion-setting Colin Davis readings, old or new, but it's good.) Opera is as much stagecraft as it is music; so SEEING it is half the experience. Even a materially limited staging, like those preserved on the videotapes of the Glyndebourne opera, can be fascinating to watch. Bergman's "Magic Flute" and Syberberg's "Parsifal" are exemplary. I'd like to see a less avant-garde mounting of Berlioz's compelling "Legend." (There must be one, in some television archive somewhere.) Even so, the added visual dimension makes the Arthaus DVD worth acquiring, especially if one were curious about Berlioz and did not already own a recording of "La Damnation." The documentation is good, but buyers will have to content themselves with synopses of the plot rather than with a libretto. This is not so much a problem, however, as viewers can select subtitles in a variety of languages, including the original French. Recommended with the various qualms and qualifications stipulated above."
THEY FLED TO BLISS OR WOE
DAVID BRYSON | Glossop Derbyshire England | 11/19/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This DVD has completed my conversion. All my life I have been used to Berlioz's Damnation of Faust as a concert work, and I have had no particular view as to whether it would be suitable for staging. The stage-production here is controversial and even provocative, but it has left me in no doubt at all that the work does not reveal its full stature and significance unless it is enacted. That Berlioz was a maverick I take to be a truism. Here is one of the deepest and most searching parables surely in all literature. Goethe's Faust is not a tragic hero in the Shakespearian sense, with a tragic failing leading to his downfall and death. He is a type of all mankind, embodying the maxim that Stapledon enunciated as Find your calling...or be damned. He is full of ennui, Weltschmerz and general alienation and dissatisfaction. He is not evil or corrupt, but he has hidden the talent that is death to hide, and he is largely a lost soul before Mephistopheles sees an easy prey and unerringly completes the process until all that is needed is his final signature, quickly and casually provided.Heard and not seen, Berlioz's Faust is largely a lyrical work. There are intermittent `effects' indeed, and the final ride to the abyss seems to me one of the most thrilling in all music, understated as only a master of hyperbole and overstatement would know how to do; but an astonishing amount of the score is `absolute' music more notable for melody than for overt drama and consisting in large part of instrumental interludes and songs. Now stage the work and see what happens. The music is transformed into a sublime commentary and magnification as the tragedy unfolds with neither haste nor delay. I took in the staging in an impressionistic way, not an analytical one. Were the strange milk-churns that Faust and the others carried on their backs their souls, their selves, or what were they? They were a burden and load of some kind. Faust starts dressed in pure white and progressively dons black clothing like Mephistopheles. I felt no need to `understand' it in any detail, as I had my work cut out to get some better understanding of whole overall theme. The musical direction impressed me favourably. I suspect that in a concert performance I might have found the tempi erring on the slow side, but even there that would be a good fault, and of course a concert performance is precisely what this is not. Paul Groves has a very innocent face, not my usual idea of Faust but not an ineffective or inappropriate one either. My first impression, with ears accustomed to Gedda in the part, was that his vocal timbre was on the light side, but it is a very attractive voice purely as a voice, he certainly does not lack power or show any sense of strain, and apart from one grisly undershoot in his duet with Marguerite he convinced me. Marguerite herself is the formidable Vesselina Kasarova and as you would expect hers is an intense rather than a tranquil reading of the part. Again not my usual idea of how to do it, but that is a matter of my temperament and habituation, not any attempt at objective assessment. Mephistopheles is the no less formidable Willard White, and to my eyes and ears he IS the part, very effectively lit at his first appearance and dominating the light-toned Groves in a way that I found just right.This is far more of a work for grown-ups than I had ever suspected. The quirkiness that I have always tended to associate with Berlioz simply vanishes in this production. It is quite clear that not everyone will react favourably to the sets or to the production generally. I can only say that I would not have expected myself to either, but I did."
Michael J. Ludvik | Ocala, FL USA | 07/26/2001
(1 out of 5 stars)
"The German orchestra play this rhythmically vibrant, linear, melodically sprung score as if it was Beethoven or Brahms. It plods, four square, without the fire and thrust of Berlioz' most transcendent score. (Yes, arguable I know.) Avoid this performance; the visuals add nothing, but the good news is neither do they detract from a yawning orchestral "missing of the point" and almost total failure to communicate the unique Berlioz profundity and panache. If I seem overly harsh, it is only because I wanted to embrace it so enthusiastically. Stick to the Colin Davis Phillips CD recording. Even the Kent Nagano is well done for the most part, although his singers are inferior to Davis's."